Soaking wet and cold, lightning flashing and thunder booming above her, Katherine Goforth Elverd refused to get off her bike.
Competing in the Ironman Chattanooga triathlon, she still had 98 miles to go in the 116-mile bicycle ride and, after that, faced a 13-mile run to complete the competition.
“Your mind is what will get you in these types of races. You have to stay as positive as you possibly can, so it started to become: Just get to this aid station or get to this mile or get to this point,” said Elverd, professor and director of the music therapy degree program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
She cleared the emotional hurdles and finished the September 2022 triathlon in about 13½ hours of non-stop swimming, biking and running.
Her intense drive to finish helped Elverd forge a career that landed her at UTC four years ago where, along with others, she created the first music therapy degree program in the history of the University. The program began in fall semester 2019 with 19 students. In spring semester 2024, Elverd expects about 40 students.
“We are thriving, and a lot of times people compliment my leadership and my administration in the program and I always say, ‘Thank you,’” she said. “To me, I’m just doing my job and, ultimately, my No. 1 job is to ensure that the students are getting what they signed up for—a well-rounded music therapy education, academic and clinical training experience.”
The extent and importance of Elverd’s accomplishments has been noticed off campus, too. Chattanooga’s Chatter magazine selected her for its 2023 “20 Under 40” list. Elverd is 38 years old.
“I was very excited because this has kind of been a goal of mine. I’ve seen the ‘20 Under 40’ list, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good goal to work toward.’
“It’s an opportunity for me to share about music therapy here in the community, do a little advocacy and education and, I guess, be highlighted for my work.”
Four others with UTC ties made the annual “20 Under 40” list, including a trio of alums—United Way of Greater Chattanooga Director of Strategic Partnerships Jessica Pilcher (political science, 2017; MPH, 2019), Market Street Partners Managing Partner Kyle Bryant (accounting, 2007) and Avenger Logistics President Jason Roberts (criminal justice, 2009). Arielle Hayes, principal of University High—a Hamilton County Schools program located on the UTC campus—also was recognized.
Elverd is a Chattanooga native, growing up in the Mountain Creek area at the base of Signal Mountain and attending Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences from kindergarten through 12th grade. She has played violin since sixth grade, been a competitive swimmer since she was about 7 and attended Western Kentucky University in part because it had a swim team, she said.
Her primary focus at the university was her psychology major, she said, but Western Kentucky also gave her the chance to continue her love of music, and she played in the school orchestra and string ensemble.
“I actually minored in music and majored in psychology,” she said.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in 2006 from Western Kentucky, she moved to Tallahassee, Florida, to pursue a master’s degree in music therapy at Florida State University.
From there, she practiced music therapy with disabled students in Albany, New York, then in a children’s hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, where many of the children had cancer. Yes, it could be a tough gig.
“The reality of working in a children’s hospital is that there are going to be some children that come in and don’t ever leave,” she explained. “I guess I always viewed it as an honor and privilege to be on this journey regardless of the outcome with that child and with that family, because many times I got the privilege of working with them from diagnosis to end of treatment, regardless of what end of treatment looked like.”
A hospital often can be a scary place for a young child and create a lot of anxiety and fear toward the medical staff, Elverd said.
“A lot of the times that was a clear identifier of, ‘OK, let’s get music therapy in.’ Music is normalizing in the hospital. It’s approachable; it’s friendly; it’s comforting; it’s familiar. It’s something that this four-year-old who’s just been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia would get in the preschool setting.”
After a move to the University of Kentucky and teaching music therapy for 18 months, she came to Chattanooga in 2016 to try starting a music therapy program at one of the local hospitals.
When she approached officials at Erlanger Children’s Hospital, Jed Mescon, vice president of marketing and public relations for Erlanger Health System at the time, heard her presentation.
“After she was finished, it’s like: ‘That was the most incredible presentation I have ever heard,’” he said. “When you listen to her, she is so convincing. She was so heartfelt and just empathetic toward these kids and the families.”
Despite local hospitals’ declining to start music therapy degree programs, she and Mescon approached UTC about one. Their pitch was successful and, in 2019, she was hired at UTC specifically to create its program.
“There had been many years of questions and comments about how a music therapy degree would be appropriate at UTC,” recalled Dr. Lee Harris, professor and coordinator of music education at UTC.
“Katie knew how to talk to different constituencies about the music therapy profession: doctors, musicians, college faculty, college administrators. Her skill in doing so opened the door of opportunity,” he said.
Elverd’s personal drive has helped make the program a success, Harris said.
“Katie is inspirational, influential and exemplary in her dedication to others,” he said. “From the outset she has invested her energy in helping others succeed. Five years after that initial meeting, I marvel at the success of our music therapy program.”
Beyond her work at UT, but still connected to music therapy, Elverd, along with her mother Kathy Goforth, created the Trembling Troubadours, a choir comprised of singers with Parkinson’s disease.
“I get to wear multiple hats,” Elverd said. “I teach; I administrate, then I do my ongoing clinical work, and everyone’s come to know that’s Trembling Troubadours.”
She also finds time to squeeze in running, biking and swimming, both for her general health and to keep her in shape for marathons and triathlons. Overall, she’s participated in two full Ironman races and six half-Ironmans, which are a total of 70.3 miles versus the 140.6 miles of a full Ironman.
Yet, there’s more on her to-do list. This fall, Elverd plans to begin pursuing a doctorate through an online program at Indiana University.
She’s had lots of practice with online instruction through the music therapy program at UTC. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, music therapy—as did all course instruction—switched suddenly and completely to online.
“I have such a different outlook and appreciation for online learning having gone through COVID,” she said. “I never thought in a million years we would be able to teach a music therapy class online, but we did. And we didn’t just survive; we thrived.”
Click here for more details about the music therapy degree program at UTC and how to audition.